TOMS RIVER, NJ – Usually the Sierra Club is all for purchasing land to preserve open spaces, but when that land is already preserved and politicians are trying to play shell games with a $60,000,00 open space fund, even the Sierra Club can’t get behind that.
Jeff Tittel, the Senior Director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey this week said an $8,000,000 purchase of the Surf Club in Ortley Beach should be funded some other way than for Ocean County Freeholder Virginia Haines to raid the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund.
“There was a proposal by some of the Ocean County freeholders to use open space money to buy existing open space from towns,” Tittel said this week. “This would not only be a waste of money, but it would undermine the purpose of open space funds. Open space funds should be used to buy lands that are threatened or environmentally sensitive, not to help give towns money. That is why we are glad that the Board of Freeholders voted against the proposal to block it.”
Tittel said the plan hashed between Ocean County Freeholder Haines, who also serves as an RNC committeewoman is essentially government buying the same land twice. Insiders within Ocean County’s government told Shore News Network that Haines met with Hill and Lakewood attorney Lawrence Bathgate to negotiate a deal for landowner Joey Barcellona. This week, the Toms River Township Council President Maria Maruca, who has been pushing the sale, along with Hill admitted Barcelona was a friend of hers.
“We shouldn’t be using valuable and limited open space money to buy the same land twice. This could be a violation of the Green Acre Rules. Open space funds are critical for stopping inappropriate development and protecting towns from sprawl,” Tittel said. “Protecting open space means less traffic, less water pollution, and flooding. It also helps protect the character of the town, the taxpayers, and the quality of life.”
Ocean County’s open space fund has historically been one of the most well-managed programs in the entire state of New Jersey. It was the brainchild of the late John C. Bartlett, a longtime member of the Board of Chosen Freeholders. After his death, Haines was put in charge of the fund and has been trying to raid the fund to fund pet projects inconsistent with the fund’s initial purpose, to purchase land from private landowners in order to prevent development. Politicians have a history of raiding funds intended for one purpose to suit their own political agenda. In this case, Haines wanted to use the funds to allow Toms River Mayor Maurice Hill to sell off two already protected parcels of land to generate revenue for the Toms River Township budge. Hill was then going to use that money from the county fund to bankroll the $8,000,000 purchase of the Surf Club in Ortley Beach as a political favor for Maruca who is up for re-election in 2021.
There has been much political jockeying behind closed doors in this latest backroom real estate deal by Hill. Earlier this year, Hill tried to sell a piece of land with an estimated value of nearly $1,000,000 to a Lakewood planning board member for just $250,000. Now, for another friend, Hill is trying to sell a piece of land assessed at $1.9 million for $8 million. Tittel said Ocean County did the right thing to deny Haines’ plan to raid the fund which would have allowed Haines to use the fund to bail out other municipal political allies in the future.
“Ocean County has had one of the best open space programs in the state. They need to continue to make sure they’re putting the money toward protecting environmentally sensitive lands. Towns like Jackson are constantly growing, which is why setting aside funding for open space is critically important,” Tittel said0. “The Ocean County Freeholders did the right thing by blocking the use of open space funds to purchase existing open space. This will allow the county to purchase new land, which is one of the most cost-effective ways to stop overdevelopment and prevent increased traffic and pollution.”